Tag Archive for 20 Working Days

How to make an FOI request (Part 2)

Further to yesterday’s post, one of my regular readers, Nicholas, asked for statistics to illustrate my point that the vast majority of requests are answered on time and in full. Here’s just a few examples, based both on publicly available sources and on personal experience/knowledge.

The obvious starting point is Central Government. The Ministry of Justice publishes quarterly and annual statistics for them. In 2009, central Government (that’s all Departments of State + their related agencies) received 40,473 requests. Of these, 19% were for information not held and a further 7% required further clarification. Of the remaining 30,124 requests,  all of the information was disclosed in 58% of cases. Only in 23% of cases was the information refused completely. And 82% of requests were answered within 20 working days. (Admittedly, the figure falls to 75% if you look just at Departments of State, but still…)

So let’s look outside central government, which is more difficult because there are few published figures for the other parts of the public sector. So I’ll give you some examples of individual organisations.

One County Council received 1449 requests in 2009. If you exclude information not held, it refused to provide some or all of the information in only 16% of cases.

A university received 56 requests, of which 54 were answered on time. Only 10 were partially or fully refused.

A busy hospital received approximately 240 requests. Despite requests rising five-fold between 2005 and 2009, and with no extra resources, it still answered FOI requests within 20 working days in approximately 84% of cases. Less than 5% of requests were partially or fully refused.

Another public authority received just under 400 requests in 2008. 85% of these were answered within 20 days. Only 9% were partially or fully refused.

Of course, it’s not good enough when a request is answered later than 20 working days in any situation. There is a legal requirement to respond sooner. And it is frustrating when you don’t get the information you want (believe me, I’ve made requests myself, so I know the feeling). But I think the above demonstrates that when the Media and others criticise public authorities over FOI, they’re actually talking about a minority of requests. The trouble for public authorities (and people like me) is that the Media and campaigners are most likely to ask the most difficult questions (in every sense) and are also most likely to make the most noise when they don’t get what they want!

How to make an FOI request

A couple of weeks ago, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations published a guide to using FOI in campaigning. I’ve now had the chance to read it, and it provides some useful case studies on voluntary organisations’ use of FOI. If you’re a voluntary organisation, or anyone else for that matter that wants to use FOI, you could do worse than take a look.

One thing niggled me as I read the guide though.  There is frequent reference to the need for legal advice when using FOI. I just worry about that perception of FOI. It isn’t actually very difficult at all to make requests (as seen from previous posts and comments, it could be argued that it is too easy). There isn’t really a need for legal advice until and unless your request has been refused by the authority, gone through their internal review process, and been considered by the Information Commissioner. That’s quite a long way to go before you need to even consider legal advice. There is plenty of guidance on the Information Commissioner’s website and elsewhere (all pointed out in the NCVO guide) that will help you make a request, and decide if an authority is giving you the run around.

One of the things I don’t really like is the way that FOI has become ‘legalistic’. Some might say that’s public authorities’ fault, and obviously some blame belongs there. But I do think that we’ve been forced to adopt that kind of approach. The early Information Commissioner decisions made clear that responses have to cite section and paragraph of the Act. That might help the ICO and Tribunal to deal with complaints later on down the line, but often I think it just means that responses sound like gobbledegook to requesters. Which in turn promotes an idea that we’re just hiding behind the law. But if we don’t include the gobbledegook, even in the most basic of circumstances, we’re criticised.

Let me give you an example. A former colleague recently responded to an FOI request, and in his response, pointed to the requested information on the website. Now you would think that would satisfy the requester. But no. He then received a complaint that he had failed to cite section 21 of the Act, as he was clearly refusing to provide the information as it was otherwise available to the requester. Well, yes, of course, technically the requester was right. But really? If you’re actually, in effect, providing the information?

The other manifestation of this is the growing trend for requesters to quote half the Act’s provisions in their requests. Increasingly the requests are almost as long as the response! It doesn’t exactly come across as a friendly enquiry to the poor old FOI Officer on the receiving end.

Why is this? Requesters may have had bad experiences in the past. The Media doesn’t help – it reports FOI stories as though the vast majority of FOI requests are refused, and that public authorities are only ever grudging in their compliance. The truth is that the vast, vast majority of requests are answered well within 20 working days, providing all of the information asked for.  There are statistics out there to prove it, but also many content requesters (often surprised after everything they’ve been told).

So, if you’re wanting to make a request to a public authority, first take a look at the NCVO’s excellent guide. And then, if you want to pursue your request, just make your request straightforward, well-defined and polite. You’ll make an FOI Officer’s day. And you’ll very probably get everything you want.

ICO Naming and Shaming could be good for FOI Officers

The ICO has today announced that it will publish lists every quarter of those authorities that it is monitoring for poor performance in meeting the 20 working day deadline for responding to FOI requests. The 33 organisations in the first list include the Cabinet Office, Transport for London, Birmingham City Council, several London Boroughs and the Met Police.

The criteria for being on the list have also been made available – they are:

  • the ICO has received more than six complaints concerning delay about an authority within a six month period;
  • it appears to the ICO that an authority has exceeded the time for compliance by a significant margin on one occasion or more;
  • (for those authorities which publish data on timeliness) – it appears that less than 85% of requests are receiving a response within the appropriate timescales.

The Campaign for FOI has already pointed out that the Ministry of Justice is not on the list despite falling under the last category, so perhaps the organisations need to fall under all three of the criteria to be listed.

This seems a good idea to me. Although I hope that the ICO (and requesters) exercise some discretion – frankly, I’d rather my local hospital saved lives than answered FOI requests on time 100% of the time – this is probably overdue as a tactic in the ICO’s armoury. Many public sector organisations are very good at meeting the deadline and do so for the vast, vast majority of their requests. However, if there appears to be no sanction against those that don’t, it makes it difficult for FOI Officers to encourage their colleagues and superiors to meet deadlines. This action adds to the armoury of FOI Officers as well at a difficult time.